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Caregiving Education

An Overview of the Dementias

Family caregivers are often frustrated by the confusing terms used to describe Alzheimer's disease. For instance, what is the difference between Alzheimer's disease and dementia? Is the diagnosis of "probable Alzheimer's disease" or "dementia of the Alzheimer type" the same as a person having Alzheimer's? Some answers to these questions may be found in a better understanding of the different types of dementia.

Dementia is a general term for the loss of intellectual function such as thinking, remembering and reasoning. Dementia is a term used when these losses are severe enough to interfere with a person's daily functioning. It is not a disease in itself, but rather a group of symptoms that may accompany certain diseases or physical conditions.

More than 50 different types of dementia exsist. Causes and rates of progression of dementias vary from person to person and between the types. Some of the more well-known diseases that produce dementia are listed below. Other conditions that may cause or mimic dementia include depression, brain tumors, nutritional deficiencies, head injuries, infection, drug reactions and thyroid problems.

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia, representing more than 56 percent of all dementias. AD is not reversible, and there is no one test for Alzheimer's. Qualified physicians are nearly 90 percent accurate in concluding that the symptoms of a person indicate Alzheimer's. Through the process of elimination, a diagnosis of "probable Alzheimer's disease" or "dementia of the Alzheimer type" will be made. Definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease is possible only through the examination of brain tissue, which is usually done at autopsy.

It is important that all persons experiencing memory loss or confustion go through a complete diagnostic workup. Dementia related to depression, drug interaction and other problems may be reversible. If the diagnosis is Alzheimer's, many treatments are available to help the person.

Here are some of the more common dementias. . .

  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) - A rare fatal brain disease caused by infection. Symptoms include failing memory, behavior changes and lack of muscle coordination. CJD progresses rapidly, usually causing death within a year.

  • Multi-infarct Dementia (MID) - Also known as vascular dementia. It results from brain damage caused by multiple strokes in the brain. Symptoms can include disorentation, confusion and behavior changes. MID is neither reversible or curable, but treatment of the underlying condition, e.g., high blood pressure, may slow the progression.

  • Pick's Disease - A rare brain disease that closely resembles Alzheimer's disease with personality changes and disorientation. Diagnosis is difficult and is confirmed by autopsy.

  • Parkinson's Disease - A disease affecting control of muscle activity, resulting in tremors, stiffness and speech impairment. Parkinson drugs can improve steadiness and control, but have no real effect on mental deterioration.

  • Lewy Body Disease - A disease in which symptoms are a combination of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. There is no treatment currently available.

  • Huntington's Disease - A hereditary disorder characterized by irregular movement of the limbs and facial muscles. Huntington's can be positively diagnosed and its movement disorders and symptoms controlled with drugs.
Adapted from the National Alzheimer's Association.

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